Into The Hoods: Breakin' boundaries

A hip-hop take on a fairy-tale Broadway musical – set in a grim housing estate – is body-popping into London's West End. By Matilda Egere-Cooper

For those that can tell their boogaloos from pop locking, and appreciate the multifarious displays of MCs, hip-hop theatre holds no fears. However, the challenge has always been to convince other audiences that they can access it, too – even if they might be inclined to shun the idea of a complex street form collaborating with the traditions of high-brow theatre.

But if choreographer Kate Prince has her way, hip-hop theatre may be about to establish itself in the mainstream, now that her show Into the Hoods is getting set to become the first long-running hip-hop musical in the West End. "The question used to be, 'does hip-hop belong in the theatre?'", says the 33-year-old. "Now it's, 'does hip-hop belong in the West End?' I'm thinking, why not? If we get it right, we're going to be opening doors for the rest of the hip-hop community."

Based on Stephen Sondheim's 1987 Broadway hit, Into the Woods, Into the Hoods is an adaptation that's been nearly three years in the making. It proved its credibility after debuting at London's Peacock Theatre in 2006, before wowing crowds at the last two Edinburgh Fringe Festivals and picking up a Herald Angel Award. "We'd been used to doing a sort of urban crowd down in London and then we went to Edinburgh and we were like, 'Oh God, no one's going to like it, they're going to be quiet, they're not going to get it!" Prince recalls. "I remember looking through the curtains, looking at what the audience looked like, thinking it's not going to go well – but it was the opposite."

With its witty choreography and hilarious moments, Prince has given Sondheim a remix nearly as fantastic as the original. The premise of a baker and his wife entering a world inhabited by Prince Charming, Jack and his Beanstalk, a Giant, Little Red Riding Hood, and Rapunzel still exists, but it's now been given an inner-city backdrop, with a soundtrack featuring Kanye West, R Kelly and Basement Jaxx as its lifeblood. The "hoods" in the title alludes to grimy council housing – in this case, Ruff Endz estate, the home of Prince, a D-list celebrity who's made his name as the local philanderer; Rap-on-Zel, an up-and-coming MC; Jaxx, a skateboarding producer in the making; Spinderella, an ambitious female DJ; Giant, the estate's drug dealer; Wolf, a dodgy record label boss, and Li'L Red, an aspiring R&B singer. "She's cheeky, she's mysterious, she's got a lot of ambition," says Sacha Chang, a seasoned dancer who's been playing the part since the show began. "There's a hip-hop street side to her, but we're still trying to keep that fairy-tale character intact."

Instead of the baker and his wife attempting to gather ingredients to reverse a spell which has been cast upon Rapunzel (the baker's sister), they're now two children lost on the estate after playing truant, and are befriended by the evil landlord (formally the witch) who promise them a room in his block on the basis they collect Nike trainers "as pure as gold", an iPod "as white as milk", hair extensions "as yellow as corn", and a hoodie "as red as blood". The urban references don't stop here – the show opens with an ominous display of hoodies dancing to a menacing revamp of the Teddy Bears' Picnic and Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth". The narrative is told through snippets of hip-hop and R&B song lyrics, flashy animation, comedy and of course, the street moves, which lend themselves to mean feats of acrobatics.

Prince insists that the production may be painstaking in its loyalty to the hip-hop genre, but is as accomplished as any other dance show. "If you turned the sound off, and if you take away from the fact that the actual style of dance is hip-hop, it looks like a kind of conventional musical in many ways," she says. "But it's very contemporary. It's today, it's London, and I think it makes a good social comment about stereotyping. At the beginning of the show, we purposely reinforce the stereotypes in order to break them down."

"It's the whole hoods thing," adds Rowen Hawkins, who plays Jaxx. "It's quite scary, quite eerie, and that's the most immediate preconception of going into an estate or whatever, but the characters, they're all really nice people. They come alive out of this darkness. It's the colour and the life, inside this conception of what street life is."

Into the Hoods also honours the realism evident in Sondheim's musical and the work of Austrian writer Bruno Bettelheim, whose book The Uses of Enchantment inspired the idea of going beyond the surface of fairy tales. "Jaxx sells drugs to pay his rent. Li'l Red wants to be a singer and signs a deal with a horrible man – but they redeem themselves. The Prince is an idiot, a two-timer. There's realism, but it's mixed up with a whole spice of fairy tale. So it's never going to be that real – because it's got magic in it," she smiles.

When Kate Prince decided to tackle this remake, none of the lead cast had seen the musical. Prince had only seen it once. Yet she was keen to tell a narrative through dance, having tried her luck with her own production at Breakin' Convention in 2005. It was later suggested that she attempt a fairy tale, and a joke about doing Sondheim's award-winning musical eventually led to her getting a commission from Sadler's Wells to take it on. She describes those initial attempts at adapting the musical as "rough around the edges", and even now, she's changed the production on numerous occasions to develop its appeal. There are now veiled references to Pop Idol, a lindy-hopping number and even some Barbra Streisand.

Prince's eclectic tastes can be traced back to growing up in Hampshire with "nothing much to do" and being inspired by the musicals and the dance style of Janet Jackson. Once she decided she wanted to become a choreographer, she moved to London and trained simply by attending dance classes. She went travelling in Africa, but then went to Edinburgh University, where she put on musicals such as Little Shop of Horrors, Oklahoma! and Chicago. She eventually returned to London to set up, in 2000, ZooNation – which became one of London's premier dance troupes and has made numerous music video and television appearances, including Strictly Dance Fever and Graham Norton's When Will I Be Famous?

Prince has the advantage of being well-acquainted with the mainstream, as do a majority of her dancers. However, the unresolved issue has been whether a hip-hop show can really be a commercial success. Hip-hop's controversial image could be a turn-off for many audiences, especially those in London's West End.

"There so much more to hip-hop than guns and rapping and making money," concedes Jeffrey Felicisimo, who plays Giant. "We're setting the record straight." Roger Davies, who plays the Prince, is also believes that the production could change the perception of hip-hop. "A lot of times, people think hip-hop, angry. They always think of the negative side of hip-hop, but they don't see other sides. It will open people's eyes to another side of hip-hop."

Frank Wilson, a former collaborator with Jonzi-D and Robert Hylton's Urban Classicism, who turns up in Into the Hoods as the Landlord, reckons it's about time hip-hop moved in the direction of the West End. "Popping, boogaloo, robotics, things like this which are hip-hop – they can tell stories, too," he says. "So why shouldn't it be there now? Why shouldn't it have its time? Right now, the West End needs something new to come along. It needs a new generation of people coming along, so, hopefully, this will make it happen."

Prince is nervous. During the second and third week of rehearsals, she is keeping her troupe on their toes, ensuring their moves are slick, while making slight amendments to the soundtrack. "All we can do is work as hard as we can, enjoy the process, enjoy the ride, and try to produce something that is life-affirming, entertaining, energetic and funny," she says.

"We want to entertain you. A lot of people might think they might not enjoy this show. A lot of people might be, like, 'A hip-hop musical? Theatre? Dance? Ewwwww, I don't know. Not for me.' But what we're setting out to prove is, if you take a gamble and come, you will enjoy it, and you will think differently about some things when you leave. You might think differently the next time you're standing at a bus stop and someone's got their hood up. You might find something to relate to them about."

'Into the Hoods', Novello Theatre, London (0844 482 5170;, Tomorrow (previews) to 10 May

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor